With an estimated 6,000-plus homeless military veterans in Los Angeles County, the handful of legal assistance organizations and attorneys doing pro bono work just aren’t enough to help all eligible veterans access their disability benefits.

To help homeless veterans receive the financial assistance for which they qualify, a small group of UCLA law students helped to create a new Veterans Benefits Legal Clinic course focused on what can be a very complex task.

“Most people don’t sue on their own without a lawyer,” said David Tierney, a Marine Corps veteran and one of the law students instrumental in creating the class. “Most people don’t treat themselves when they’re sick without a doctor. But veterans are trying to apply for benefits by themselves all the time, and no one is telling them otherwise.” 

Similar to a worker’s compensation claim, a veteran’s disability benefits claim requires evidence that an injury or traumatic experience in service caused a disability that interferes with the veteran’s ability to work.  

But what makes these claims particularly complicated is that, for veterans, the trauma might have happened years ago and might not have been documented, Tierney said. Even when staff at the Veterans Benefits Administration want to help veterans, the procedural requirements, like documentation, make securing assistance difficult.

To learn how to construct a narrative from what can be a jumble of faded memories, old eyewitness accounts and the repercussions of post-traumatic stress, students study actual cases and work one-on-one with veterans under the guidance of an experienced attorney. Some men and women suffering from post-traumatic stress may experience nightmares, have a compulsion to check whether doors and windows are locked dozens of times a night or sleep with a loaded gun under their pillow.

Since January when the course started, students have been delving into the statistics that demonstrate the extent of the problem, gaining a complete understanding of the filing and appeals processes, and honing their skills at reviewing documents and interviewing, skills deemed critical for successful claims. Students also learn what it takes to make a successful claim for a physical injury, traumatic brain injury, sexual trauma or post-traumatic stress.  

To apply what they’re taught, students counsel veterans one-on-one under the supervision of Melissa Tyner, the instructor in the clinic, or another attorney with the Inner City Law Center, where Tyner works as the directing attorney on the Homeless Veterans Project. During six clinical sessions, students went to homeless shelters and medical clinics for veterans to provide on-site legal services.

In roughly 75 percent of the cases that the law students work on, it’s difficult to conclusively prove that a specific traumatic incident has led to a disability, Tyner said. “We don’t even have a particularly high standard of proof, but we have to show something happened. That is incredibly difficult in a combat theater.”

Tyner said she focuses on training students to thoroughly review documents because, despite its importance, it’s often an underdeveloped legal skill among law school graduates. “When you find that one document that helps you tell the story or helps you cast the light of justice for a veteran, it’s a really rewarding moment.”

Not only are students taught to review documents for what’s being said, but Tyner also emphasizes that students must understand what’s not being said.

Consider cases of military sexual trauma, which frequently go unreported and are among the most difficult to prove. Tierney and his classmates may not find an incident report with a specific accusation, but there may be records that show the consequences of abuse, like sudden transfer requests and out-of-character discipline problems.

“But in law school, we’ve learned what those types of evidence are, how to gather it and also organize it into a compelling and convincing case,” he said.

The new course is a more formalized approach to some of the work being done by UCLA law school’s student-run, extracurricular Veterans Clinic, which assists homeless veterans with a variety of legal issues. 

The law school’s Veterans Law Society started the clinic in 2010 as a way to bring UCLA law students’ expertise to bear on problems facing veterans in the area. The clinic is part of El Centro Legal, UCLA School of Law’s student-coordinated network of volunteer legal aid clinics.

In the Veterans Clinic, law students assist attorneys from the prominent firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips and from local nonprofit organizations during intake sessions with veterans living at the VA campus in West Los Angeles. The sessions provide support with issues ranging from debt to family law. The law students also focus on moving veterans through Homeless Court to wipe away minor citations.

But Tierney, chairman of the student-run clinic, said that, although volunteering at the clinic was personally fulfilling, the brief interactions with veterans and the limited scope of their work gave him a feeling that something was missing. So Tierney, along with fellow students Elizabeth Shirey; Michael Wilburn, who served in the Air Force; and Yun Hee Kim, an Army veteran; had the idea to start the formalized course.

“We saw the clinical course as part of a bigger picture. The four of us had really big dreams for what we could do,” said the 46-year-old Tierney, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1986 and served in the first Gulf War. He was immediately drawn to the student-run veterans clinic when he entered law school.

► Read about how UCLA assists veterans.

As a veteran, Tierney has insight that many lawyers lack. Veterans need to understand they have rights, he said. Questioning an authority’s decision runs counter to the military code that emphasizes taking orders without question.

If veterans were assisted by lawyers and law students skilled in this area of law in the first place, Tierney said, more claims would never need to go to appeal, thus reducing the time the VA is forced to spend on each case.

After he graduates in May, Tierney said that he’d like to go into public interest law, probably veterans benefits law to help clear the backlog of cases that can take the VA years to adjudicate.

Tyner, who is now a lecturer at the law school and continues to informally advise the extracurricular clinic, said the students are getting a much richer and more robust experience in veterans law and helping provide justice for people in the community who would not otherwise have access to legal assistance.

“Through this course UCLA is providing excellent training for its students, who are able to sit down with an attorney and get the support they need,” Tyner said. “And, of course, veterans are getting legal services they would not otherwise have.”

Tierney added: “UCLA has such a wealth of resources which could help veterans, some of which, like the benefits clinical course, are already helping. I think it’s our duty to use those public resources for veterans where we can.”